Top 10 business applications stories of 2020

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It should go without saying that the Covid-19 public health emergency was the leitmotif for the world of business applications in 2020.

The first three stories picked out from the year here touch on different aspects of the crisis as it relates to business software: supply chain resilience, customer experience software deployed to attenuate the economic depredations of the pandemic, and the avoidance of burnout in the use of collaboration technology.

There then follow three stories that pertain to the two perennial software giants that dominate this field – SAP and Oracle.

SAP has a new (since November 2018) CEO in the driving seat, Christian Klein. His debut as CEO at Sapphire – the supplier’s main annual conference, usually held in Florida, but virtual this year – was ill-starred in technical terms, but his emphases on supply chain resiliency and automation against the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change were well taken.

Meanwhile, on terra firma, UK and Irish SAP customers face a profoundly challenging skills shortage when and if trying to transition from ECC6 to the S/4 Hana ERP system.

Oracle’s main thrust, as in previous recent years, remains to push its cloud message. Steve Miranda, executive vice-president of Oracle Applications product development, said customers changing their business models are those most likely to go all-in on the supplier’s cloud applications suite.

The big two do not dominate enterprise software exhaustively, however. Here, attention is drawn to the thoughts of IFS CEO Darren Roos, the experience of UK supplier Sage in delivering a module of HM Revenue and Customs’ vital Job Retention Scheme, and cloud CRM behemoth Salesforce expanding its reach into collaboration software with its acquisition of Slack and beginning a long-term strategic shift into public cloud provision.

Diversity is a major theme for Computer Weekly across the board. This top 10 also features an article about digitally including a generation, many of whom have been using technology this year more than ever, the over-60s – in whose number is, lest we forget, Bill Gates.

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 business applications stories of 2020: 

1. Covid crisis shifts supply chain management from efficiency to resilience

Supply chain management seems to have changed profoundly as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, possibly shifting from an economy of efficiency to resilience, harnessing trading networks, machine learning and robotic process automation.

Looked at on a world scale, the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to deliver shocks to global supply chains for some time to come. Even if the public health crisis abates in the UK, our economy is part of a global economy, and UK corporate IT will have its work cut out in supporting companies as they are forced to re-forge supply chains, perhaps over and over again, and at short notice.

The crisis has provoked some rethinking of how the world economy ought to work, with an emphasis on the desirability of a shift from efficiency – doing things “just in time” – to resilience – building in more slack.

In the discussions behind this article, there are different emphases on a spectrum of opinion: some say we can have both efficiency and resilience equally, others say there is a choice to be made for one or the other, and yet others say it’s a matter of balance, of trading off. 

2. Customer experience software can help companies weather the Covid-19 storm

Advanced customer experience software has been helping companies weather the Covid-19 storm, as well as build resilience. Marks & Spencer is one firm exploring the technology.

The rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant global economic downturn as countries put their citizens in lockdown means that both individual organisations and entire industries worldwide are having to rethink how they operate.

But rather than simply abandon the customer experience management activities and competencies they have been building steadily over the past few years, Bruce Temkin, experience management guru and head of the Qualtrics XM Institute, recommends that they focus on “adjusting and reprioritising their efforts to align with the organisation’s changing needs”. 

3. Collaboration technology is breeding burnout– keep it real

The Covid-19 pandemic caused the use of collaboration platforms to spike. But as fatigue set in, organisations have tried to keep their use cases focused.

Although communication and collaboration platforms have been around for years, their adoption has inevitably gone through the roof with Covid-19 lockdowns being implemented around the world.

On the one hand, many employers had little choice but to turn to such technology as, in many instances, their entire workforce was forced to work from home overnight. This meant a way of replacing site-based interaction was required for businesses to continue functioning.

On the other hand, unlike the systems of old, this software is now affordable, cloud-based and easy for users to adopt. 

4. Sapphire 2020: Christian Klein steps back from products to push ‘intelligent enterprise’ resilience

Christian Klein used his first Sapphire keynote as CEO of SAP, in June, to underline the supplier’s support for supply chain resiliency and automation against the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

However, registered attendees struggled to access the webcasted keynote through the official SAP event website, with many resorting to a Periscope feed – stoking up a Twitter storm.

Klein, who took over as sole CEO in April, avoided the approach of previous CEO Bill McDermott, who made product developments, such as the supplier’s database Hana and the S/4 Hana enterprise resource planning software based upon it, and acquisitions, such as the 2018 $8bn purchase of Qualtrics, the building blocks of his Sapphire keynotes. 

5. Oracle OpenWorld 2020: Miranda – business model changes are driving turn to cloud

Steve Miranda, who leads Oracle applications development globally, spoke to Computer Weekly ahead of his keynote at the virtual version of OpenWorld in October. Supply chain management and customer experience are vectors where improvements are being made, he said.

He said that customers changing their business models are those most likely to go all-in on the supplier’s cloud applications suite.

Speaking ahead of his keynote address made live at the extended virtual version of Oracle OpenWorld (“Reimagined”) on 29 September, Miranda told Computer Weekly: “That is a theme with our customers who are moving to the cloud. Their traditional systems have been fine, but now fast-changing business environments are forcing them to change to make them more nimble.”

He said the Covid-19 crisis had speeded up cloud adoption among Oracle customers, adding: “We’ve seen faster go-lives during the pandemic. There has certainly not been a slowdown.” 

6. S/4 Hana projects come off back burner, but skills shortage impedes progress

UK and Ireland SAP User Group members seem to be set to ramp up S/4 ERP migration projects into 2021, but skills shortage and retirement of SAP managers in user organisations are a concern.

The UK and Ireland SAP User Group’s Digital Insights Symposium learned that the slowing down of S/4 Hana projects that members have seen during the pandemic year of 2020 is to be followed by a significant ramp-up, for which skills are in perilously short supply. 

7. IFS CEO Darren Roos: Customer investment in cloud and digital has held up during Covid

Darren Roos, CEO of business applications supplier IFS, told Computer Weekly that business had been surprisingly good during the coronavirus crisis.

He said his worst fears for the commercial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic failed to be confirmed. “Every prediction I made this year has been wrong,” he said. “I am no Nostradamus.”

Roos added: “When the crisis originally hit, I believed that we would see a cataclysmic impact on the business, and that we would be hunkering down for what would likely be six months. April was bad, and then people seemed to just shake it off and May and June were phenomenal again.”

He said some customers have shown more interest than before in moving to the cloud with their IFS applications because of Covid-19. 

8. How Sage scrambled software development team for Job Retention Scheme module

Find out how a small team of Sage developers, testers and payroll specialists raced against time to help customers facilitate HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) furlough scheme.

Lindsay Philips, head of product engineering at Sage, told us how the company had to scramble a development team quickly to create a module to support the firm’s customers that wanted to make use of the UK government’s Job Retention Scheme.

The scheme, whereby the government pays 80% of the wages of workers – up to a maximum of £2,500 a month – of companies that have decided to furlough them during the Covid-19 outbreak, was an early-crisis innovation by chancellor Rishi Sunak.

The scheme was an emergency measure put in place rapidly by HMRC, and the response of the Sage software engineers, on behalf of their customers, also had to be fast and furious. 

9. Dreamforce 2020: Hyperforce shifts Salesforce to public cloud

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, gave way during his keynote at the virtual version of Dreamforce in San Francisco to chief operating officer Bret Taylor to announce Hyperforce, seemingly a badge for the cloud CRM supplier’s more intensive move to public cloud provision.

The supplier’s software-as-a-service sales and marketing automation products have always had a measure of delivery over the type of public cloud infrastructure associated with AWS, Google, Microsoft and Alibaba.

But Hyperforce announces a significant increase in the use of infrastructure from, it would seem, the big four of the public cloud, and on a worldwide basis.

A company spokesperson confirmed Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Alibaba as partners, and added: “Hyperforce is a long-term project. Salesforce will continue to maintain existing infrastructure and datacentres for an extended period of time.” 

10. Designing software to include older people in the digital world

The Covid-19 crisis has accentuated the importance of including older people in the digital world. How can software firms design products to include generations that came to maturity before the internet, asked Steven Mathieson.

Even before the pandemic, it made sense to design software to work well for older people. Longer lifespans have greatly increased the number of elderly people worldwide – and this trend is continuing. The United Nations expects that by 2050, people aged 65 and above will outnumber the under-25s in Europe and North America.

But many older people do not use computers. In the UK, only 76% of those aged at least 65 use the internet, according to 2019 data from the Office for National Statistics. Its figures for women aged at least 75 and living alone were even lower, with just 41% using the internet in the past three months.

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